Detailed Instructions for Each Pose of Ashtanga Yoga's Sun Salutation A

Adho Mukha Svanasana

Sun Salutation A is the first and most essential sequence in Ashtanga Yoga. Here are my detailed instructions for each asana.

Samasthitihi / Standing Pose

Stand in a neutral position with the spine erect and aligned. Press down through the heels and gently activate the gluteal muscles. The abdominal muscles will sympathetically engage. The pelvis should be held in a neutral position, without tipping forward or backward. The rib cage, shoulders, and head will likewise be balanced over the pelvis.

The bandhas (Uddhiyana Bandha and Mula Bandha) are also engaged, which stabilizes the connection between the pelvis and the rib cage. As a result of using the bandhas, the breath will move mostly out of the abdomen and into the rib cage. Use Ujjayi Breath, which is regulated breathing through the nostrils. The periods of the inhalation and the exhalations are of the same duration.

The drishti (focus of the gaze) is neutral and toward the horizon. The palms face the sides of the hips.

Urdhva Hastasana / Hands Up Pose

Exhale while in Samasthitihi then, with the inhalation, raise your arms upward in a circular motion until the palms press against one another. In the movement, the shoulder blades and rib cage are restrained downward. This maintains a mindful connection between the rib cage and the pelvis. The gluteal muscles engage to push the hips forward to create a slight back bend. The head tilts upward and the eyes look at the thumbs. With the slight back bend, the neck is permitted to lengthen without excessive extension.

Uttanasana / Forward Fold Pose

With the exhalation, fold forward and downward. The knees unlock and the bandhas keep length through the midsection. The arms sweep downward in a circular motion until the palms rest on the ground beside the feet (or on your legs), fingers facing toward the top of the mat. The drishti is past the nose. Press down through the legs to keep create a dynamic stretch through the back of the body, including the hamstrings and along the spine.

Ardha Uttanasana / Half Fold Pose

With the inhalation, rise half-way. The lift is created by pressing down through the legs and lengthening the abdomen. The gluteal will also work to support the torso in this position. The spine should be straight. It is perfectly acceptable to bend the knees in order to release tension across the back of the legs and pelvis to permit the spine to straighten. Keep the neck neutral; that is to say, don't look forward. It is very useful to have a mirror for reference in this pose. It doesn't matter whether the hands are on the floor beside the feet or on somewhere on the legs. The most important action is to straighten of the spine.

Chaturanga Dandasana / Low Plank / Four Limbed Staff Pose

With the exhalation, move into Plank Pose or the top of a push up. In this initial position, the middle or index fingers face forward and the hands are slightly wider than the shoulders. The elbows point backwards, not out to the sides. The shoulders are actively pulled away from the ears so they do not compress the neck nor rotate inward, collapsing the chest. This action engages the many muscles that support the shoulder blades while reducing tension in the neck. Note: With experience and speed, you may move from Ardha Uttanasana to the bottom of Chaturanga with one exhalation. If you wish and need to practice more slowly, then move into Plank Pose with the exhalation and then pause to inhale, then lower with the exhalation.

The main benefit of Chaturanga is to strengthen the arms and chest, so practice careful alignment. This alignment includes keeping the shoulder restrained, the elbows facing back and held near the rib cage, and the forearms perpendicular to the ground. You will lower forward over the hands. Go no deeper than a 90-degree angle in the elbows. This is the safest limit for most people. I prefer than my students set their knees down for Chaturanga in the beginning stages of their practice. Lower the shoulders forward to just before the limit of your strength. Don't collapse or fall; always stay in control of the body. You should feel the contractions in the deltoids, triceps, and pectoral muscles.

The gaze is past the nose, so the neck is in a neutral alignment.

Urdhva Mukha Svansana / Upward Facing Dog Pose

Many students seem to focus on Chaturanga while rushing through Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. The former is the negative phase (like lowering a barbell in a chest press) and the latter is the positive phase (like pushing the barbell upward) of the two asanas. In this comparison to a chest press, you may see that this pose is also important. The movement is to extend the arms, while keeping the elbows pointing backward, until the arms are slightly bent. Do not lock out the elbow so you will continue to work the triceps, deltoids, and stabilizing muscles around the elbow joint. The shoulders are pulled back and down  as the chest is opened and pushed forward. The gluteal muscles engage strongly to release the back and assist with the back bend.

Take your time with the inhalation and the movement. Keep a slowly, steady movement of the body in sync with the breathing through this pose. It is often overlooked.

In regard to the feet, the bottom of the toes support the lower body in Chaturanga and the top of the feet and toes support the body in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. There are a few ways to transition from one to the other. The first is to flip one foot at a time while extending the arms. The "pro" way is to roll over the toes. If most of your body weight is in your hands in Chaturanga, then it is easier to roll over the toes. Notice than in the transition from Chaturanga through Urdhva Mukha Svanasana to Adho Mukha Svanasana, feet generally start and return to the same location. I see students moving their feet forward in Adho Mukha Svanasana and this is unnecessary.

The gaze is past the nose at a 45-to-60-degree angle above the horizon. Notice that you are not to look straight up. That would create extreme neck extension and, combined with the careless speed with which most treat this pose, it likely results in unnecessary stress to the discs between the cervical vertebrae.

From Urdhva Mukha Svanasana to Adho Mukha Svanasana, flip the feet from the top surface touching the floor to the toes being tucked. This movement can be accomplished by rolling over the toes or flipping one foot at a time. Once the toes are on the floor, exhale while using the abdominal muscles to pull the hips back and up until the body is in an A shape.

Adho Mukha Svanasana / Downward Facing Dog Pose

Adho Mukha Svanasana is a difficult and technical pose, at least in the way that I present it. However, the technique that I prescribe will strengthen the shoulders, improve performance of arm-based poses (like arm balances) and reduce the risk of injury to the shoulders, back, and hamstrings.

In regard to the hands and forearms, place the hands slightly wider than your shoulders and spread the fingers comfortably. The index or middle fingers should point straight forward. Take a look at the wrists and arrange the bones of the forearms in a neutral-as-possible alignment with the hand bones. That is to say, the wrists do not show any compression on one side or the other (medial and lateral). In order to accomplish this, you must turn the elbows downward so they point back behind you. This alignment will engage your serratus anterior muscles, located along the sides of rib cage. Keep the elbows unlocked and slightly bent so the arm and shoulder muscles continue to work. Notice that this is very different than locking out the elbows and supporting the body primarily with the bones.

In regard to the shoulders, the upper back should open up so that the shoulder blades move laterally away from one another and there is no concavity between the shoulder blades. This will further engage the serratus anterior muscles, the teres muscles, and decompress the muscles of the uppermost shoulders and neck.

For the legs and spine, do not be concerned with pushing the heels to the ground. This usually leads the practitioner to make unfavorable compromises in their lower back. Instead, lengthen and stretch the spine. Accomplish this through lengthening the abdomen, paying attention to the distance between the lower ribs and the pelvis. There should be a gentle, natural curve in the lumbar spine. Mistakes here would be rounding the lower back upwards or over-expanding the abdomen so there is a deep downward-facing curve in the lower back.

The feet are approximately six inches apart and the knees face forward, rather than the usual tendency to allow them to rotate medially. The neck is relaxed and the drishti is back toward the navel.

Hold this pose for 5 breath cycles.

After the final exhalation, bring the feet forward to the hands. This movement can be accomplished by simply stepping the feet forward or jumping the feet forward or by "floating." Floating is an advanced transitional technique that requires a great deal of strength and coordination, so I will describe it in the future.

Ardha Uttanasana / Half Fold Pose

After briefly arriving in Uttanasana, inhale into Ardha Uttanasana. Be mindful to stretch and straighten the spine.

Uttanasana / Forward Fold Pose

Exhale folding into Uttanasana. Pay attention to releasing the back of the legs and the spine.

Urdhva Hastasana / Hands Up Pose

The movement from Uttanasana to Urdhva Hastasana is taught in various ways. The description that follows will yield the least strain on the spine while improving the coordination of the lower body.

In Uttanasana, press the legs down actively so their muscles contract. Lengthen the abdomen forward and upward using the abdominal muscles, which presses you up halfway. From this point, contract the gluteal muscles to push the hips forward and straighten the body. Continue to contract the gluteal muscles to create a slight back bend while taking care to maintain integrity in the upper abdomen by avoiding over-expansion. In summary, use the muscles in this sequence to arrive to a standing position: legs, abs, glutes. The movement is performed with an inhalation and with the raising of the arms overhead until the hands touch. The drishti is focused on the thumbs.

Samasthitihi / Standing Pose

With an exhalation, the arms return to the sides and the gaze returns to the horizon as the head arrives at a neutral alignment.